Tag: Susie Dent

sharknado

Language review 2013: from bitcoin to sharknado

Everyone loves a new word. When Oxford announces its Word of the Year, I sometimes detect behind the buzz of expectation a pang of disappointment that the chosen ‘winner’ isn’t a brand new invention. The romantic allure of a mint-new coinage, the inspiration of a single moment in time, is hard to resist. The truth […]

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Johnson and Grose: lexicography's odd couple

Johnson and Grose: lexicography’s odd couple

April 15 marks the anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a work that’s today universally recognized as an astonishing feat of solo lexicography. The publication, in 1755, rightly attracted great attention; David Garrick wrote a poetic eulogy to mark the achievement in the Public Advertiser, describing Johnson as ‘like a hero […]

In a nutshell, cutting the mustard by the skin of your teeth: popular idioms explained

In a nutshell, cutting the mustard by the skin of your teeth: popular idioms explained

Why do good things ‘cut the mustard’? The word mustard has been used to mean something excellent or superlative for almost a hundred years—the phrase ‘keen as mustard’ draws on the same idea of added piquancy and zest. ‘Hot stuff’, in other words. In America, to say something was ‘the proper mustard’ in the early […]

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So far, so bad.

I found myself looking up the origin of ‘curmudgeon’ last week. Defined as ‘bad-tempered, difficult, or cantankerous’, its components once meant, more or less, ‘a growling grimacer’. This last description sums up almost exactly my facial expression when I hear a language tic of the moment that has knocked ‘going forward’ off the top of […]

What is the strangest change in meaning that any word has undergone?

What is the strangest change in meaning that any word has undergone?

  I can only give a very subjective answer, but I’ll start with a few nominations. Most of the words in everyday English have been in (and occasionally out of) circulation for centuries. A study of them in a historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which charts chronologically the story of a word […]

Why do some words have two opposite meanings?

Janus words

Single words that have two contradictory meanings are known as contronyms. The number of contronyms in English is small, but they are significant. Examples include: dust: 1 to remove dust. 2 to cover with dust. hysterical: 1 frightened and out of control. 2 funny. nervy: 1 showing nerve or courage. 2 excitable and volatile. moot: […]

What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

Jolly Roger

The traditional swashbuckler, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So a […]

Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

Beer

There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same […]

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